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Hockey Challenge 2014

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Season Wrap, Finally.

Apparently, I'm too stupid to figure out how to put together a podcast with Jon and I discussing things about the season. It's on my bucket list and I'll get it figured out eventually but I want to make sure we do it well and do it the right way.

I didn't want to let this go any longer.  After all... training camp starts next week. (Not really... keep up with me here people).

The Kelowna Rockets sent the Tbirds packing with a 4 game sweep the week before last. A disappointing result to be sure but there are positives (and negatives) to be taken away from this season. I'm going to use a grading system because everyone does it and I'm too lazy to think of something better. What I will do is use a number system because it allows me for a lot more nuance. Scale is 1-10. 10 is good, 1 is not.

The Good:
  • Seattle managed to earn home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. This was a very clearly stated goal for the team and the organization and they accomplished it. However, they were only able to secure the final spot and they did it based on a tie-breaker, so they get a passing grade here but most certainly not the highest grade possible. Grade: 7.5
  • Seattle advanced to the second round of the playoffs by defeating their I-5 rivals the Everett Silvertips in 5 games. This really could not have gone much better for the Tbirds. In the first ever playoff series with their big rivals and they won on the road and closed out the series at home. Grade: 9.5
  • They have now improved in each season under the helm of Steve Konowalchuk. Their point totals have increased in each season as well as their goal differential. This can't be looked at as anything but a success. I can't say that I always agree with every decision that Coach K has made but he has done an excellent job turning things around and his teams have now performed pretty well in the playoffs two years in a row. Grade: 8.1
  • Russ Farwell landed Ryan Gropp early in the season and saw both him and Mathew Barzal emerge as potential superstars in this league and have given Tbirds fans a renewed sense of hope for future playoff runs that are deeper than the second round. This had the potential to continue being a disaster for Seattle and getting Gropp into the program was perhaps more important than any of us really realize. Grade: 8.8.
  • Only two teams in the Western Hockey League managed to increase attendance year over year and one of them was the Seattle Thunderbirds. Seattle has done a host of things wrong over the years but they deserve to be commended for their development of the Kent market and gains in attendance. Grade: 8.0
The Bad:
  • Only one bullet point here.  I see one big negative to the season and it's a negative that might be a bigger deal than we're all willing to admit.  Seattle did all of this with an extremely 19 year old laden team. Typically, teams that load up on older players are usually doing it for the purpose of hosting a Memorial Cup or making a run at the league title and earning a birth in the MC. Let's all be honest with ourselves, the team may have felt like their goal was to win a WHL title but that was never a very realistic goal.  That leaves me with two pretty critical questions? Why wasn't this team even better than it was and where are we going for next season? Grade: 4.6
Let's get into this a little bit.

I want to make sure I'm as clear as possible that this season was a lot more enjoyable than any season we've had since the 07-08 campaign. That's quite a while. You know it, I know it, we all know it. Seattle was not only competitive but won quite a few games and was particularly tough at home. This helped increase attendance and helped grow the fan-base in the South King County area.

Despite all of these positives, I have concerns about the team going forward and the expectations (fair or unfair) that are going to get placed on this team in the next few years and their ability to live up to those expectations.

I'll explain.

In a future post, I'll break down the potential 20 year old situation but for now we will go with the general observation that this team is about to get younger. That is problem number 1. I think you can make a strong argument that this team will be more skilled next year with another summer of development from Mathew Barzal and Ryan Gropp and the addition (hopefully) of guys like Dante Fabbro. Youth, however, doesn't typically win in this league. That's not to say they can't win, it just means it typically does not work that way. Back in 2010 I put together a simple study and post about the correlation between the overall age of a team and the number of points they were able to capture.

This season Seattle iced one of the older teams in the Western Conference. Other teams to ice older rosters? Kelowna, Portland, Spokane, Vancouver, Victoria. The younger teams? Prince George and Tri-City. It doesn't work out perfectly but you can see that generally older rosters compete and generally younger rosters to not.

Now, I'm not saying Seattle will all of a sudden get really young. They're going to have three 20 year old's on the roster from the group they have to pick from and three 19 year old defenders in Shea Theodore (who I think will be back), Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf.

The problem is that with the exception of Shea Theodore, none of their older players are going to be their best players.  I should note however that we don't have any idea what Russ Farwell is going to do at the Import Draft and that could change this thesis slightly.

So while the team is likely to have elevated expectations, they are also likely to be younger.

The second reason I'm not bullish on this team going forward has nothing to do with numbers, or age, or roster breakdown. It has to do with style of play. Seattle mostly employs a dump and chase style. I've talked a few times on the blog and on twitter about how I'm not a big fan of dump and chase. I'm not advocating the elimination of the dump and chase (it will likely always be a part of hockey strategy). No, it's more about not making the dump and chase the focus of your attack.  Currently, Seattle relies upon chipping the puck deep into the corners and hoping their forwards can get to the defense early enough to inflict a physical check and either create a turnover or cause the defender to make a poor decision with the puck (and/or rush that decision).

This is an old school way of doing things and I've argued with a few people on occasion that the game is evolving and the way teams attack and create opportunities is evolving and changing.

You could make a case that up until this year, Seattle had to play dump and chase fore-check hockey because of the type of players they had. It was no secret that Farwell liked players with size and drafted accordingly. Those teams, in my opinion, had size but lacked the skill to play anything other than dump and chase.

Next year, this team should be different. Players like Theodore, Barzal, Gropp, Eansor, Spencer and Pederson have the ability to play a more open style that creates and puts opposing defenses in tough positions to defend.

Don't believe me that this evolution exists?  Follow Darryl Belfry on twitter @belfryhockey or watch his videos on his youtube channel or visit his website. I know this sounds like an advertisement but it isn't. This guy has pro clients that are some of the most creative players in the game. This is how the game should be taught to these players.  

I'm not around in practice, I don't know what goes on each day. Maybe they are teaching the game this way and maybe the players just aren't capable of executing it.  I don't believe that to be true but I'm admitting that I don't know for certain. I'm only basing it on the things that I see and I see teams like Kelowna and Portland doing these things more often than I see Seattle doing them.

This leads me to have doubts about whether Seattle will ever take a true leap forward against the rest of the league even if they have Gropp, Barzal and Fabbro.

I hope that they do... I just have my doubts.

This post is getting long so let's call it a day and I will follow up with my Player "grades" on Friday.


Anonymous said...

I would only say that most teams that "load up with 19 yr olds" for a Cup run, do so by trading away high draft picks (1st and 2nd rounders)and/or top prospects in the system. Seattle did none of that. they kept their high picks and their top prospects, so I don't think they loaded up for a Cup run as much as they added solid older role players, but not superstars, to get home ice in Round 1.

Thunnex said...

I agree with you on that.

I'm not so much worried about what they gave up to get those players. More worried about the vacuum effect of those players moving on.

Anonymous said...

I do not think the sky is falling next season. They will be younger at forward for sure, but will have a great deal of experience on the back end.

Also, Tri and PG's young players, I would argue, are not the calibre that Gropp, Barzal,Bear, etc are so I'm not sure that those comparisons are fair to Seattle.

It's also not totally unprecedented to have your best players be guys in their 17 year old seasons. Halifax won a Memorial Cup last year with seven 17-year-olds, three of which, Mackinnon, Druin and Fucale, were their best players. I'm not saying that Gropp, Barzal, etc are as good as Mackinnon and Druin but I think Seattle will be better off than most people think.

The rest of the division is losing some high end older players as well. How will Everett replace Winquist, Khaira and Pufahl? Spokane with Holmberg, Aviani and Williams?

Thunnex said...

Yeah, I'd agree with that as well.

I'm not saying that the sky is falling at all.

I just expect to see fans say that they think this team should win the U.S. Division and I don't know that that is a fair expectation level.

Anonymous said...

Do you guys ever see Portland going through the WHL cycle of having a few bad seasons? Seems as though they have the cupboards stocked and they keep restocking them, that with their sanctions that have been placed on them.

Anonymous said...

I'm loving that the comments are actually more positive than the original post! I'd say that's a positive for this team, too. :)

Anonymous said...

In regards to Portland the lack of draft picks especially high picks should cost them sometime in the future. However over the past few seasons the organization has been very successful picking up players from other sources. The team has several players from the state of Minnesota. Seem to pick up 19 year old from somewhere to contribute.

Anonymous said...

Can someone explain for those of us who are new to the WHL offseason how "free agency" works in this league? I see on the T-Birds website that a number of players have gone to play for other teams, which I expected (a lot like "winter ball" for Major League players) but I don't know with some of these guys whether it means that they will not be back. I see that Trook went to play for Norfolk, Barzal is playing for a U-18 club and Theodore got drafted by the Ducks. So how do we know which players will be back and which will not be? Do these players have a date that they have to declare by?

Finally, I know I'm asking a lot, but can someone give a list of the players that they know will be back, that they know won't be back, and those that are on the fence?

Mr Tell13 said...

Good post, and fun and positive comments to boost!

For Sea, the amount of 19y/o on the team this year was pretty high and I get that some people might have concerns. Not sure I share them, but I can see the point.
On the offense, the team was running a solid 3 lines for most games, meaning 9 players. If Hickman comes back (high probability), You already have your 3 centers (Barzal, Eansor and Pederson. Also one of your lines is intact (Gropp, Barzal and Hickman). Spencer and Kolesar are probably ready to get on a regular assignement on the 3rd line. So on the top 9 fwd line you really are missing only 2 wingers (and one of these spots could be filled by either Yakubowski or McKengny.
with the fourth line that could be filled by young prospect or bubble players, that does not sound too bad (to me).
BIG CAVEAT: That cheerful happy lookout on the season depends on what they pick at the Euro draft. If they pick 2 fwds looking more like Delnov or Lipsberg...all good. If they turn ou to be more on the Senturin side of things, UGH!
So we will see I guess.
To anon 6:50
You need to look at season 06-07 to 08-09. That said new ownership, flushed with money and a GREAT pitchman (and coach and gm) at the elm (Jonhston)you can compensate for a lot in bad drafting position and sanctions. So will they be a factor next year, sure. It will get harder I think. They had a pretty good rotation of talent in the past few years and it might drop a peg or two. I don't think that guys like Bitner, Turgeon and Iverson can perform to the level of the Brad Ross, Leipsic or Petan. But you can believe that they are looking everywhere to get that possible hidden gem and Johston will sell his program hard.

Thunnex said...

Anon 10:25... loaded questions but great questions.

Let me see if I can cover them.

Players who have been eligible for the draft and were not drafted (i.e. Hickman) are essentially free agents and can sign contracts with anyone. Hickman went to Bridgeport on what is called an ATO (amateur try out) which means they were basically giving him a "look" in a few games at the end of the season. This does not mean that he is not property of the Islanders, though he could, in theory, sign an Entry Level contract in which he would become their property.

Entry Level deal... is what Troock signed. That doesn't mean Troock will NOT be back for certain but typically players who are 20 years old and eligible to play in the AHL and have signed Entry Level deals typically play at that level. Occasionally that player is returned to Juniors and such was the case with Greg Scott a few years back.

Shea Theodore had already signed an Entry Level deal with the Ducks, hence him joining the likes of Troock going to play for AHL clubs after the Tbirds season ended.

Theodore however will be only 19 years old next year and the NHL doesn't allow 19 year olds to play in the AHL* so they have to either play for the big club (Ducks) or be returned to their Junior team (Seattle). Such was the case with Mathew Dumba of the Winterhawks who had been playing sparingly with the Minnesota Wild but was returned to Portland after his rights were traded.

Barzal and Gropp playing at U-18's is not connected to NHL teams and they were selected by Hockey Canada to represent their country at the tournament (because they're awesome).

Unfortunately, I can't give you a definitive list on who will be back and who won't. That's one of the neat (and perhaps frustrating) things about Junior Hockey is that the rosters change a ton from year to year.

Troock probably won't be back. Delnov and Lipsbergs will almost certainly not be back. Russell Maxwell will most likely not be back because he has said publicly that he's going on his mission. Theodore is probably back but might not be back. Hickman is probably back but also could sign a deal and as a 20 year old might not be back.

Players who were 16, 17 and 18 this year are pretty safe bets to be back unless they are traded or decide to play somewhere else next year for the purpose of added playing time which could happen in the case of a player like Kevin Wolf.

* - The NHL has some weird rules in regards to 19 year old's but the general rule of thumb is that if you're playing for a CHL team at the time you were drafted you cannot play in the AHL. I believe if you were playing overseas... get drafted and THEN come over to the WHL you could potentially play in the AHL. Someone can correct me if I don't have that part 100% correct.

Anonymous said...

Tyler, I've been wondering about Kevin Wolf, he barely saw the ice this season and I think if Fabbro signs and Osterman has continued to develop there may not be a spot for him next season. What's your take?

Thunnex said...

Anything is possible but I think without a significant leap forward over the summer... I think he's going to find it hard to crack the lineup again.

Unknown said...

Nice thoughts Tyler and the rest of the people offering comments.

I am interested to see what the offseason brings. I'm guessing two import forwards (they seem to have plenty of defensemen in the pipeline and getting a goalie is out of the question because Canadian goalies aren't as good as Euro goalies or something like that :) I'm also thinking one of these forwards will be an NHL draft pick like Delnov was and then I'd like to see them get a younger import so they both aren't the same age. I'm also interested in seeing what combination of positions they end up with for their 20's. Do they go 1 G, 1 F, and 1 D? Do they go 1 G, and 2 F? Do they get a good offer for Kozun and go 2 F and 1 D or 3 F? I think with the age of their core defensemen (probably 3 returning 19 year olds) that they could afford to trade both Wardley and Henry. Especially since 20 year old defensemen seem to have a lot of value.

I think if Hickman isn't signed and in the AHL next year I think he has to be one of your 20s. I'd love to see him back with Gropp and Barzal for another year. I'm thinking Kozun is kept as a 20 and Mumbaugh is traded. I think they keep a second forward and trade the defensemen. I'm guessing Honey is retiring since they removed him from the roster for the playoffs? If Honey is healthy and fit to play I think I'd have him over Yack and McKechnie (yes I know injury prone), I think the youth of the team would benefit from him especially on the PP. Can you imagine Theo QBing one unit and Honey on the halfwall for the one timer on the other unit? I think that leaves Yak or McKechnie. Neither blew me away last season, but maybe that is just because they were in the defensive role so much. I think I'd keep McKechnie of those two, since he is your best penalty killer and they will need solid contributions from all their 20s next year. So I guess you hope you get something for Yak, Henry and Wardley that can help next season and future seasons. The team next year can really use a 19yr old forward or two.

Kodi said...

I went ahead and sorted the roster by position and age. I also removed players that will not be back next year. Is there a remote possibility that one of those players could be back? Yes but it's not likely so I'm not even going to bother considering them. As for what will actually happen well it's really a crap shoot because I think Russ is more likely going to make trades for what he can get in return vs what's best for the team (for instance trading Forsberg instead of Elliot).

16 Kaden Elder
16 Nolan Volcan
17 Keegan Kolesar
17 Lane Pederson
17 Mathew Barzal
18 Calvin Spencer
18 Ryan Gropp
18 Scott Eansor
20 Connor Honey
20 Jaimen Yakubowski
20 Justin Hickman
20 Sam McKechnie

17 Ethan Bear
18 Kevin Wolf
19 Jared Hauf
19 Jerret Smith
19 Shea Theodore
20 Adam Henry
20 Evan Wardley

17 Logan Flodell
18 Danny Mumaugh
20 Taran Kozun

So looking at this list let's first look who we are likely to add this year.
Euro #1 Forward
Euro #2 Forward

Now it wouldn't shock me at all to see Russ take a defencemen with one of these picks but I just think the Euro game is more of a speed based game which is what it seems this team is turning in to. I also agree that we should look at splitting the ages of our Euro picks as we are no longer able to trade Euro picks so to retain a higher chance of success we should look at taking a new Euro each year.

All that being said I would look at dropping 2 20 year old forwards first and the two on my list are Honey and Yakubowski. I love both of those players but I don't want to risk a 20 year old slot for a player who could only stay healthy enough to play 7 games in Honey or a player in Yakubowski who in his stint with Seattle missed 10+ games with two "upper body injuries" including time in the playoffs.

Next knowing that we have a bunch of talent coming up in the system I would look at getting rid of one of our 2 20 year old defenders. I like Wardley because he is more of a stay at home defender with some grit where Henry is more of a scoring defencemen which is also needed. Now I like them both and to me this is a scenario where it would be fine trading the one we could get the most for but I will say I worry that Wardley is one bad boarding call away from a 7 game suspension and anything that risks us losing a player for an extended period of time is a bad thing (remember when we were thin after the holiday break and how that went).

So that leaves us 1 player to look at getting rid of. Now if someone wants to give us a 1st round pick for Kozun right off that bat like maybe a Kelowna who is losing Cooke but look to make another run and want to strengthen the backend then that to me makes the solution easy. If we aren't that lucky though I think we have to go in to the beginning of the season with 4 and see how some of our young talent produce. If Flodell is all that and a bag of chips then can we look at going with him and Danny and getting rid of Kozun? Same goes with our young D and the forwards that are coming up.

In any case it's going to be a LONG and BUSY off-season!

Anonymous said...

I would include 17 Donovan Neuls to that list. He was signed recently.

Anonymous said...

If Fabbro signs, I don't think you have to bring back Wardley or Henry. Top six d men would be


Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that Osterman isn't signed either.

Unknown said...

Here is a look at my current projection on next season... Of course (as been discussed), picking the 3 20's is a bit of a crap shoot and the rest is subject to potential trades, but I don't expect as many trades this off-season/regular season as we have seen in the past.

1) Calvin Spencer (18)
2) Scott Ensor (18)
3) Justin Hickman (20)
4) Ryan Gropp (18)
5) Mathew Barzal (17)
6) Sam McKechnie (20)
7) Keegan Kolesar (17)
8) Kaden Elder (16)
9) Nolan Volcan (16)
10) Lane Pederson (17)
11) Donovan Neuls (17)
12) Euro One (17-19)
13) Euro Two (17-19)
14) New Player 1* (16-19)

15) Jarret Smith (19)
16) Kevin Wolf*** (18)
17) Shea Theodore (19)
18) Ethan Bear (17)
19) Jared Hauf (19)
20) Luke Osterman (17)
21) Dante Fabbro** (16)
22) Shavan Khaira** (16)

23) Taran Kozun (20)
24) Logan Flodell (17)

25) Free Space if needed (16-19)

*Possibility to pick someone up

**If signed

***Based on my list. "New Player 1" has the possibility to be a defender because I agree a lot with comments regarding Wolf

Based on this list, while next season is going to be up in the air (although I am willing to go on record saying I believe the team will be better then last season), the real push will be in the 2015-2016 season (I know people don't like looking two years ahead, but hear me out)...

With the possibility of no 19 year old forwards this season, our overage problem following next season will not be much of an issue. Chances are we will lose Theodore as a 20 year old, but that would leave Smith and Hauf as two of our three 20's, and pair that with 18 year old's Bear and Osterman, and (hopefully) 17 year old's Fabbro and Khaira (each with a full season under their belts). We should have a very strong Defensive core (and isn't the saying offence wins games but defense wins championships?). Then up front we will have an 18 year old Barzal and 19 year old Gropp (as chances are good that if Gropp is back next season as an 18 year old he will be back as a 19 year old as well because of the AHL rules). Even if we lose Barzal to the NHL (which depending on next season is a real possibility), we will still have 19 year old's Spencer and Ensor, 18 year old Kolesar, 18 year old's Pederson, Nuels (both with a full season under their belts like Khaira and Fabbro), and most likely the two Euro's picked up in this upcoming draft (who should be 18 or 19 each, both with a full season as well)... Oh and you will also have a 16 year old Tyszka on the back end who should be worth watching. Finally, with the final 20 year old spot (if Theo is in fact gone), I don't think there is any shame in picking up a 20 year old Goalie with the ability to rest when need be because of an 18 year old Flodell on the bench.

All in all... As long as Farwall doesn't do anything drastic, I think we are in really good shape (a lot better than some people seem to think).

Besides, this season should be Portland's last hurrah (and by the 2015-2016 season they should be average at best... unless they cheat again), Kelowna should be back down to Earth as well after this upcoming season, and I do not see Tri-Cities or Spokane having enough time to become anything more than good by the 15-16 season (though both should be better... although Spokane is in a world of hurt for this upcoming season).

I hate to admit it, but the only wild card (in the US) is Everett as they are currently just as young with a (I hate to admit) great coaching staff.

Kamloops is another wild card (for the conference) as they had some decent draft picks these last couple seasons, Victoria will probably be brought back down again as they have missed out on some high draft picks, and although Prince George is currently one of the youngest teams in the league, I'm afraid they are doomed to suck... No one wants to play there.

While I can't be more excited for the upcoming 2014-2015 season, I'm not afraid to admit I already can't wait for the 2015-2016 season.

Thunnex said...

Tyler... excellent work. +1

Unknown said...

Thanks. I've been keeping tabs on this ever since the beginning of last season. I did it for my own benefit because (originally) I too was very nervous about what would happen after last season with the number of 19 year old's we had... But once I broke it down, almost all nervousness when away and was replace by excitement. I also took a look at both Portland's and Kelowna's situation compared to ours too... And although we are going to lose about 8 players as compared to 6 each for Por and Kel (this off season), we have a much stronger group of young kids looking to fill in the ranks this season. You can almost argue that the talent being brought in will offset the talent being lost (with two decent picks in the Euro draft as well as Honey being out almost all last season anyways), and add on top of that the fact that they are a much younger group. Plus the core that will remain (most notably Barzal, Gropp, Bear, Ensor, and Spencer) are going to be that much better and should all (or almost all) be on the team in two seasons as well. And to top it all off, the question of who we lose next offseason will be 100 times easier than this offseason (whereas POR and KEL might have more trouble).

Anonymous said...

What about 17's Holowko and Kreklewich? Both had great camps last year - are they still on the list?

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